Growing up in America as a member of the Baby Boom generation, I know that I’ve lived in the best place and the best time in the history of the world—or at least very close to it. Canada, some European countries, Australia, and later Japan can lay some claims to being the best places ever, but suffice it to say that I’ve been lucky. Yet, despite all the material comfort and security that my country and culture have allowed me, there’s still a sense that things aren’t as they should be. The twentieth century is full of contradictions: untold wealth and material prosperity with horrific wars, deep economic depressions, the threat of nuclear annihilation , and a culture that sometimes seems alien to human concerns and that degrades the natural environment. Thus, despite my good fortune, I’ve been sympathetic to critiques of our culture. My introduction to such a critique came from Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969), which I was assigned to read in my freshman year in college for my course “Introduction to Political Theory”. From that introduction, I went on to read the likes of Hannah Arendt, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Phillip Rieff, the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, William Irwin Thompson, Wendell Berry, and others. I’ve found resonance with critiques of contemporary Western culture (which has been adopted in many essentials by a large part of Asia as well). I hasten to add that I’m well acquainted and sympathetic to the champions of our contemporary world, too, and as this is also “the best of times”. I appreciate the positive perspective as well.
I mention all this because now I have now encountered a new diagnosis and critique of many of the problems of Western culture that strikes me as uniquely insightful and truly ingenious.
College literature professor turned psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, has written a two-part book about the anatomical split in our brains and how that split in functions affects how we perceive the world and creates our culture. According to McGilchrist, we can consider our culture from the perspective of the different functions of the two different hemispheres of the brain.(For some further background, see my earlier post about McGilchrist’s RSA Animate presentation and the book he wrote as a follow-up to this masterwork under review here.) In the first part of the book, McGilchrist focuses on anatomical and functional details of the brain, with the well-known but often misunderstood division of the left and right hemispheres. The split is not, as first thought, a neat division of language and logic on the left versus vision, music, and feeling on the right. Functions for each of these skills draw on both sides of the brain. However, the brain is divided and is different on each side. In fact, it doesn’t even sit symmetrically within the cranium: it’s torqued (Yanklovian torque) as if twisted it slightly from the bottom so that the right front is slightly larger than its left counterpart, and the left posterior just a bit larger than its right counterpart. This anatomical anomaly, in addition to the fact that the two sides are joined by a bridge, the corpus collosum, that serves as the gatekeeper of the traffic between the two halves, gives some clue to the division of functions within the brain. The gatekeeper often performs its most important work when it inhibits traffic between the two halves. Why? Because each half has its own outlook or way of perceiving the world.
McGilchrist spends much of the book examining the two different ways each side of the brain perceives the world: the right deals with living, dynamic, unique, and context-dependent portions of the environment. The left side deals with (and creates) the static, still, and minutely focused parts of our attention. Each side has evolved to deal with two different needs. The two sides of the brain cooperate, but they their perspectives are largely separate. Thus, language involves both sides of the brain, but the left side, with its emphasis on static and detailed information dominates in vocabulary and syntax issues. Thus, while an impulse toward speech may originate in the right brain, those impulses must pass to the left side to obtain full expression. Here is where stroke victims and the subjects of split-brain surgeries (severing the corpus collosum to alleviate epileptic seizures) provide amazing clues about the differing functions of the two hemispheres. McGilchrist wades through this research to deepen our understanding and appreciation of these issues.
But if the book was only a catalog of “our amazing divided brain!” it would prove interesting but not profound. The profundity and deep value of the book comes from McGilchrist’s ability to trace the effects of this division of the brain into daily life, especially into a portrait of its effect on the formal culture of the West. (He doesn’t address Eastern culture, begging off for a lack of acquaintance.) McGilchrist’s knowledge of Western culture, especially literary and philosophical culture, is impressive. McGilchrist argues that Western culture since the Enlightenment, and especially after the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, has been dominated by a left-brain perspective. It has focused on the static, the manufactured (i.e., not living, not organic), that which we can manipulate and control, and that which pays easily identifiable dividends. The left-side also prefers the literal to the metaphoric and the artificial to the natural. McGilchrist finds this especially true in the 2oth century when examining contemporary literature and philosophy as well as the broader cultural milieu.
McGilchrist finds times in Western cultural history when attitudes, beliefs, and practices, reflecting the two differing perspectives and functions of the brain, were balanced, such as Periclean Athens and the Renaissance. Problems arose early, on the other hand, when the pre-Socratics, such as Heraclitus, with his emphasis on flux and change, were shunted aside by Plato and Aristotle, who preferred the static and “reason” as the ideal. Indeed, from Plato through Kant Western philosophy emphasized the left-hemisphere perspective (with some exception for Spinoza: “Spinoza was one of the few philosophers, apart from Pascal, between Plato and Hegel to have a strong sense of the right-hemisphere world.” McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 3804-3805). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.). In the wider culture, religion offered a good deal of counter-balance to the left-sidedness of philosophy. McGilchrist argues that with Hegel, philosophy begins to take a corrective turn. He writes:
Hegel, along with Heraclitus and Heidegger, has a particular place in the unfolding story of the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres, in that, it seems to me, his philosophy actually tries to express the mind's intuition of its own structure – if you like, the mind cognising itself. His spirit is like an unseen presence in this book, and it is necessary to devote a few pages to his heroic attempts to articulate, in relation to the structure of the mind or spirit (Geist), what lies almost beyond articulation, even now that we have knowledge of the structure of the brain.
McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 5477-5481). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Along with Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, among German-language philosophers, receive extended and sympathetic treatment (demonstrating that McGilchrist willingly suffers through some dense and challenging prose to retrieve nuggets of insight). Also receiving favorable treatment and consideration are lesser known figures like Husserl, Scheler, and Merleau-Ponty: each gives voice and insight into to the function of the right brain. Finally, McGilchrist considers the American pragmatists John Dewey and William James for their useful perspectives on philosophy and the organic nature of reality.
McGilchrist, following Leon Sass, agrees that modern culture displays many of the traits of schizophrenia. Publisher’s Weekly writes of Sass’s book Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought: “Does the schizophrenic's chaotic inner world resemble modern art and literature? Sass, a clinical psychologist and Rutgers professor, argues that schizophrenia and modernism display striking affinities: fragmentation, defiance of authority, multiple viewpoints, self-referentiality and rejection of the external world in favor of an omnipotent self or, alternately, a total loss of self. While the parallels he draws often seem superficial, there is much to ponder in Sass's notion that schizophrenia's core traits are exaggerations of tendencies fostered by our culture.” As this quote suggests, McGilchrist, following Sass, finds striking resemblances that McGilchrist identifies as a manifestation of a left-brain perspective run awry. Identifying and counter-acting this trend is a defining part of McGilchrist’s project. He writes:
My choice of the Nietzschean fable of the Master and his emissary suggests that right at the heart of the relationship between the hemispheres I see a power struggle between two unequal entities, and moreover one in which the inferior, dependent party (the left hemisphere) starts to see itself as of primary importance.
McGilchrist, Iain (2010-08-16). The Master and His Emissary (Kindle Locations 5481-5483). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.